SHERMAN OAKS—Don Cornelius, the creator, producer and former host of “Soul Train,” died after apparently committing suicide at his Sherman Oaks home on the morning of Wednesday, February 1, according to reports. Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center pronounced him dead at 4:56 a.m. from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 75.
The Chicago-born Cornelius created and was the first host of “Soul Train,” a television show that was one of the most important trend setters in pop and dance music during its 35-year run from 1971 to 2006. Billed as “the longest-running, first-run, nationally syndicated program in television history,” the show featured stars such as James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Barry White.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Cornelius began his show business career in radio after show host Ed Cobb of Chicago radio station WVON discovered him during the course of a traffic stop in the mid-1960s. At the time, Cornelius was a Chicago police officer and had pulled Cobb over for a traffic violation. While Cornelius was questioning him with typical traffic stop questions, Cobb noticed his deep, unusual voice and told him that he was in the wrong profession. Cobb suggested that Cornelius come down to the radio station and make a demo tape. Cornelius ended up doing so and was hired as an announcer for the radio station, where he also worked as a backup disk jockey and news reader.
Cornelius hosted “Soul Train” from 1971 until 1993 but remained with the show working behind the scenes until its final season in 2006. Cornelius was best known for a catchphrase he used to close each show: “And you can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey! I’m Don Cornelius, and as always in parting, we wish you love, peace and soul!”
Low ratings and the closure of the show’s distributor put the show in limbo until it officially ceased distribution on September 22, 2008. The show has since resurfaced in reruns on television channel Centric, a spinoff of Black Entertainment Television. MadVision Entertainment now owns the rights to the “Soul Train” franchise after purchasing them in 2008.
In 1987, Cornelius launched the “Soul Train Music Awards,” which honors top performers in R&B, Hip-Hop and gospel music. Two other annual specials were later created called “The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards,” which first aired in 1995 celebrating top female performers and “The Soul Train Christmas Starfest” which premiered in 1998 and featured holiday music performed by a variety of R&B and gospel artists. These two programs last aired in 2006.
According to Biography.com, legal troubles plagued Cornelius in the later years of his life as he was arrested and charged in 2008 with spousal battery, dissuading a witness from making a police report and assault with a deadly weapon. Cornelius pled no contest to misdemeanor domestic violence and was sentenced to three years probation. This incident led to an ugly divorce with his second wife, Viktoria, in 2009. During the feud, which lasted for more than a year, Cornelius was also suffering from health problems, including a stroke and several undisclosed illnesses that required surgery.
Kenard Gibbs, CEO of Soul Train Holdings, LLC commented in a statement on Cornelius’ death.
“We are overwhelmed with the news regarding the passing of Don Cornelius. Our deepest sympathy and thoughts are with his family at this time. He was a true television visionary and his contributions to African American culture and music entertainment are immeasurable. The outpouring of affection and tributes to his legacy are a true testament to the profound impact that his life’s work had on many generations,” Gibbs said.
Members of the entertainment industry have tweeted condolences and tributes to Cornelius on Twitter. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello wrote “RIP the peerless Don Cornelius. Awesomely funky Soul Train was my first exposure to MUSIC. Thank you Don.” R&B/Soul singer Mary J. Blige shared “Not good news to wake up to. I’m here in LA one town over from Sherman Oaks.” Singer/songwriter Ginuwine shared “RIP Don Cornelius Someone who paved the way for black music I still remember my first time on soul train what an experience.” Rapper Snoop Dogg added “RIP Don Cornelius. LOVE PEACE AND SOOOOUUULLLL 4eva.”
Cornelius is survived by his two sons Anthony and Raymond from his first marriage to Delores Harrison.